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Terry Newell Headshot

Remember, It's "We" the People

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The face of America is changing, and that worries a lot of people. The United States is increasingly a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual society. In 2010, 81.04 percent of Americans identified themselves as white. That figure is declining and is projected to be 77.32 percent by 2050. In 2010, 16.03 percent identified themselves as Hispanic. By 2050, that figure is projected to be 30.25 percent. Proposals to establish English as our official language, to allow police to ask for papers to prove legal status, and even to amend the Fourteenth Amendment to prevent children born to illegal immigrants from acquiring automatic citizenship reflect the fear that America is not America any longer.

Nor is it just our diverse origins that concern some Americans. It's religious diversity too. Anti-Muslim protests, as well as the persistent belief by some (despite the historical record) that the Framers of our Constitution sought to create a "Christian nation," reflect a wariness if not outright dislike of minority faiths as well as the secular nature of American public life.

For some Americans, diversity in sexual preference is another source of concern. Protests over gay marriage reflect yet another range of fears about the changing face of America.

Surround all of this with a recession during which we've lost our jobs or are afraid we might, have seen our net worth decline as home prices plummet and face debt that's hard to pay off - and you have the ingredients for an anxious, angry, divided nation. Many of us seem to want to hold back change, keeping America "the way it used to be."

It may be a natural human reaction to respond to anxiety with an us-versus-them, nostalgia-for-the-past approach to how we live and govern, but what's natural is not always what's healthy, individually or collectively.

America will never be what it used to be, and in many respects that's a very good thing. Only fifty years ago, most Blacks could not vote, hold office, attend integrated schools, earn a decent wage, rise into positions of prominence and, in many cities, eat at a store's lunch counter. Only fifty years ago, women had few career choices, could not attend many colleges, and were effectively barred from many professions and positions in private and public sector life. Only fifty years ago, gays and lesbians were persecuted and shut away in devastating social ostracism which led to diminished and often danger-filled lives. Had none of this changed, America today would have denied itself the talents and creativity of millions of its citizens - contributions essential to our economic, social, political, and military health.

The American story is one of inclusion, not separation. We may long for a homogeneous past in which all Americans were pretty much the same, shared the same beliefs, values, traditions, and even religion, but that's an American that never was. Our past has always been a history of diversity - and coming together.

As early as 1754, Benjamin Franklin created a political cartoon, Join or Die, showing the colonies as a snake cut into eight sections, symbolizing how the lack of unity threatened our future. The Revolution itself succeeded only when we united against the British crown. The national seal captured this: E Pluribus Unum - out of many, one. Indeed, throughout our history, we have been faced with choices where we could divide or come together. It's only when we have chosen the latter that we have prospered.

The first draft of the Constitution's Preamble, began: "We the People of the States of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island, and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity." The Committee on Style thankfully shortened this to "We the People of the United States of America..." Point made.

We chose division in the mid-nineteenth century, and Civil War was the result. At its end, Lincoln called for "malice toward none and charity for all," a plea signaling the importance of both forgiveness and union - and of how critical the former is to the latter.

The black struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, the struggle of women for their rights stretching all the way from the suffrage movement to the feminist movement, the campaign for treating people with disabilities (which is, after all, all of us at some point in our lives) with dignity as well as rights, and the gradual (if still halting) effort to extend civil rights in the field of sexual orientation - have been or are being resolved in favor of inclusion, not separation. It is hard to imagine being proud of an America - or having a strong America - had we not done so.

America has also been - always - a nation of immigrants, except for the only indigenous people, our native populations. America would not be America had we not welcomed immigrants, who have contributed many of our greatest achievements. It is to our lasting credit that we have included them, even as it is to our shame that we have done so much to exclude our native tribes, whose worldview and talents we so badly need.

There is a lesson here for those whose response to the fears of modern life is to favor policies of exclusion even as they call for a return to the true Constitution. That Constitution starts with the word We. If we ignore that, we miss its most important word. The answer to the centrifugal forces of diversity is the centripetal force of union.

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